Mom Next Door: Heather Astuto / Founder and CEO of Especially Needed

WORDS
Nicole Jordan
PHOTOGRAPHY
Nick Prendergast
PUBLISHED
January 2017 in
DFWThrive
UPDATED
December 27, 2016
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Heather Astuto is fresh off a weeklong cruise to Belize, Honduras and Cozumel — a complete anomaly in the McKinney mom’s generally hectic routine. Her boyfriend invited her and she reluctantly agreed, hesitant to leave her children and weighty workload behind. “I probably shouldn’t have even gone,” she says. “But I could probably use the break …” Anyone who knows Astuto would agree, knowing that the vacation couldn’t have been more deserved. The 37-year-old single mom of two — Leanna, 13, and Giana, 7 — rarely takes time for herself. “It may cross my mind, but then something happens or I get a call or have to make dinner or it’s bedtime. I’m exhausted by the time I sit down.”
 
When she’s not working as a senior property manager for Lincoln Harris CSG and a realtor, she’s caring for her daughters. And when she’s not caring for her daughters, she’s pouring herself into her passion project, Especially Needed, a nonprofit she founded in 2010. It’s “go, go, go” 24/7 and has been for the past 13 years.
 
Before becoming a mom, Astuto knew little about special needs, much less Down syndrome, but that all changed when Leanna was born — and then promptly whisked away. “Congratulations, it’s a girl,” was followed by “and we’re going to take her for tests because she has the characteristics of Down syndrome.”
 
“It was shock; there were a lot of emotions,” Astuto remembers.
 
Rather than asking “why me?” the mom educated herself on her daughter’s needs. She trashed the growth chart doctors provided, resolving to hold Leanna to the same standards as a typical child and practiced at-home therapies with a religious like fervor. “I pushed her harder and I became stronger and more persistent,” she says. 
 
These days, Leanna is a happy, healthy teen with a love for technology, dance and dress up. “Aside from her inability to communicate, she’s pretty much like any other child,” Astuto says. “The struggle I’ve experienced most with her is the inability to find activities and care for her.”
 
In her first few years with Leanna, Astuto was astounded by the dearth of resources available to families with special needs. She realized other parents probably faced the same challenges she did, and yearned to find a way to help.
 
The catalyst for Especially Needed came unexpectedly when a parent made a hurtful comment about Leanna at a fall carnival. Astuto vowed then and there to create a community for families with all types of special needs, and in October 2010, Especially Needed launched with its own fully inclusive carnival.
 
“Seventy-five to 80 families came,” Astuto says. “I didn’t realize the need was so strong. Families began to reach out and asking what other events we do.”
 
Now, Especially Needed has a network of more than 1,300 families across Dallas-Fort Worth. The carnival is a hallmark event, along with the annual Christmas celebration and Easter egg hunt, which touts 25,000 eggs and is in contention for the Guinness World Records’ largest egg hunt for children with special needs. The organization’s tagline “Celebrating our differences! Celebrating Life!” perfectly embodies its mission: to build a community around inclusive, fun and stress-free special events.
 
But Astuto’s work is just beginning. Her goal is to build a “celebration center,” where Especially Needed can hold parties and events — maybe even a charter school. (She’s had preliminary drawings done by an architect.) She envisions a sort of “one-stop shop” for families, offering every resource they may need. Morgan’s Wonderland, the San Antonio amusement park for children with special needs, recently recognized Astuto for her work with Especially Needed by naming her a Wall of Fame Honoree. She was recognized with six others at a gala, and her name was permanently added to the park’s “Wall of Fame.”
 
All of this and Astuto still makes it a point to put her girls first — both girls; she strives to be particularly mindful of Giana’s needs as a typical 7-year-old — and manages a successful career in real estate, which she calls her “second passion.” In many ways, it’s also her outlet. “I’m able to take my mind off everything else. I love my career and the company I work for. They’re supportive of work-life balance, which makes a world of difference.” Fortunate for Astuto, who requires flexibility to keep her many plates spinning.
 
Balance is even more elusive to Astuto than to most. The Especially Needed board is invaluable in helping run the organization, but helming a nonprofit can still be fraught with stress. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’re helping other families. But it’s a lot of work, especially when you’re a single mom with a full-time job.”
 
Her family isn’t local, so she relies on her girls’ father and friends to fill in the gaps when she can’t. On particularly tough days, she calls her mom to vent — her form of “therapy.” “I don’t really have an outlet to relieve stress,” she says. “You get used to this lifestyle. You’re almost in survival mode. The idea of spending time on yourself is there … but way in the future.”
 
The day-to-day leaves little time for any semblance of a personal life, but Astuto manages. She’s had a few relationships over the years, and is hopeful she’ll remarry one day. The spare time she does have is typically spent with her girls: swimming, going to the park and having dance parties in the living room.
 
Over the years, she’s learned it’s these “small things” — fleeting moments of celebration — that matter most. “Enjoy your children,” she says, reflecting on what the past 13 years have taught her. “It can always be worse. You can’t quit; you have to keep going. No matter how hard it gets, I stay strong for my girls. My life is filled with love and joy, and that’s what matters.” 

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